People ride for different reasons. I ride for the pleasure that I get from the pain.
I marvel at people who enjoy riding simply for the beauty and pleasure of turning the pedals on a sunny day. I envy those for whom cycling is a weapon among their arsenal of fitness tools. I’m awed by those who discovered the bike hard on the heels of an illness or a condition like alcoholism, obesity or diabetes, and have used cycling as a pathway to health.
Most of all I wish I were like the people who can look out the window on a cold, wet day with squalls and lower temperatures in the forecast and just say, “Fuck it. I’m going back to bed.”
The sting of the lash
By today’s standards, I was an abused child. By Texas standards in the 1960’s, I was a little miscreant who deserved every whipping I got, and probably a few hundred that I didn’t. By the Davidson family standards, which originated in frontier Tennessee, fought and somehow survived the Civil War, and ended up in West Texas ranching a corner of barren desert scrub, I got off easy.
No matter. As a child I lived through horrible beatings that I still can’t square with my reality, the reality of a parent who, after a handful of halfhearted spankings administered to my daughter when she was very young, never struck a child again. Something about the ferocity of my childhood whippings has been beaten so deeply into me that they are inextricably bound up in the sinew and muscle of my very being.
The big black beard, the flashing angry eyes, the powerful arms, the fury, the terror, the crazy attempts to escape, the submission, and the sting of the lash. Over and over, until the pain engulfed my frail body, until the sobs and screams were so deep and racking that they sucked even the primitive will to survive out of my dancing legs, just standing there limp and blind, absorbing the biting, angry, relentless sting of the lash.
That terrible pain, pain so sharp and awful, inflicted by the person I loved and admired and wanted to be like most, can for me only truly be exorcised a few moments at a time, on two wheels, during those fleeting seconds when everything is screaming stop, but the waves of hurt roll on, shutting out everything else.
Am I the only one?
The rain of pain falls mainly on your brain
For me, then, the wind and the rain and the cold aren’t deterrents. They are, rather, accelerators that get me quickly to the pleasure zone, where effort becomes work, and the work then becomes discomfort, and the discomfort morphs into either the extreme exhaustion of a long ride or the searing pain of a bad climb or a hellish rotation or a solo chase in no-man’s-land with no hope of ever latching back on.
This morning I hooked up with Iron Mike’s Wheatgrass Ride after fielding a torrent of texts and emails about the weather. Is it raining up on the Hill? It’s gonna worse, isn’t it? I don’t know if I should go, are you going? Etc.
Of course I’m going. Look at all that pain out there, waiting to be harvested. I have to.
We pulled out of Malaga Cove under threatening skies and a few drops of rain. The sunny riders had already drawn their line in the sand. “If it gets any worse, I’m going home.” Which it did, and which they did.
Soon we hit the turn at the bottom of the reservoir and began the climb up to Homes and Domes. The rain began to really fall, not stylish and well-dressed rain that’s too cool to come down hard, but like Texas rain. Thick, wet, hard, and cold. I shuddered from the pleasure as the wet drizzled down into my shoes and as the thick, greasy layer of embrocation pumped the heat down into the soles of my feet.
Here I was, again, riding with ten stalwart friends tucked on my wheel, their faces splattered with the dirty rain kicked up from my rear wheel. Were they having as much fun as I was? Why were they out here on a day like this? But even with them I was alone, falling into that old place, the place that started out as gentle ripples but promising something worse, something better, something infinitely more, piercing some black secret if only a second so that I could peer into the void and understand how. Understand why. Why?
Wiping away the hurt
There’s a 4.9-mile stretch on the Wheatgrass Ride that takes you from the bottom of the Switchbacks to the church on the right just before Hawthorne. It has a little of everything. It rolls, it has a couple of sharp, short kickers, it has a terribly deceptive gradual uphill, it has a gentle, long screaming downhill, it has a few twists, and on Strava it has a record set by my good friend Douggie on January 8, 2010.
I’ve been trying to break that record for months. I’ve assaulted it with ten other guys riding a paceline, with a handful of 3-4 engines, as a duo, and even solo. No matter what the configuration, the closest I’ve ever gotten is about a minute from his record of 9:57. When we dropped off the Switchbacks this morning I felt the howling tailwind that everyone had assured me was the key ingredient missing from all of our previous failed attempts.
I went. There were three riders in front of me: Fisherman, Clodhopper, and Frankendave. I passed them and kept up the heat through Portuguese Bend. The ripples turned into waves. At the glass church Fisherman and Clodhopper flashed by, then blew. I soldiered up the roller, never thinking I had a chance. And all the while I saw it coming, the white hot sting of the lash.
Over and over and over until there was no Strava, no Wheatgrass, no bike, just a snotslick strip of pavement and a tunnelled blur and the raging flush of the fury and the terror and the pain choking off everything except the silent scream within begging for it all to stop.
And bam. It stopped. And I had the new record by eleven seconds.
To the happy lovers exiting the Hawthorne Starbucks I was covered in snot and grit and grime and filth. But to me, I was cleansed from within. Again.